In Judith Slaying Holofernes, two women pin down a tyrant, one of them sliding a sword through his throat as blood spurts through the air—a chilling realistic detail that proves the man’s heart was still pumping blood at high pressure. The blood leaks from his neck, staining the white linens, while Judith hovers with an impassible, contained rage that nearly verges on pleasure.
The painting, finished between 1614 to 1620, is by Artemisia Gentileschi, a female painter who worked in an era when women painters were largely shunned by both the artistic community and patrons. She would come to be known for her paintings of strong women who suffered trials and tribulations. In Gentileschi’s depiction of Judith, the rage is palpable, even if Judith’s face remains aloof—rage ripples from the painting, nearly contagious. Based on the story of Judith in the Old Testament, the painting shows a heroine who slew an army general in order to free her people, but the artist also gave the work a deep personal twist: Gentileschi used her own features in rendering Judith, and her rapist, Agostino Tassi, was the model for Holofernes.
Agostino Tassi, rapist, was an established painter when he was hired to instruct the teenage Artemisia, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, who was full of artistic talent from a young age. If we know anything about the character of Tassi, it’s that—like her father’s friend Caravaggio—he had a reputation for criminality that belied his reputation as a respected artist. Often involved in bar brawls and fights, Tassi had been accused both of raping his sister-in-law and, after his wife went missing, of hiring bandits to murder her.
In 1611, Tassi raped Gentileschi while her servant pretended not to hear the struggle. According to Gentileschi’s testimony at the trial, which we still have, the struggle was so violent that she managed to injure Tassi and extract a promise of marriage. In seventeenth century Italy, sexual violence was not a recognized concept in the way it is today; instead, the only social repercussions of sexual violence would be the tarnishing of the woman’s “honor” and marriageability, an “honor” that could only be rehabilitated through marriage (in fact, “rehabilitating marriages” after rape would still occur in Italy until the 1960s).
However, Tassi’s disappeared wife returned, not dead, making the rehabilitating marriage impossible. This is the point at which Gentileschi’s father initiated a lawsuit against Tassi.
According to Elizabeth Bishop in her The Trials of Artemisia Gentileschi: A Rape as History, Gentileschi was tortured to test her credibility. Strings were tied around her fingers, painfully cutting off the circulation, a procedure that could have injured her hand and finished her career as an artist.
Her rapist first denied any intercourse before declaring that he had proposed marriage to save Gentileschi from the scandalous life she was leading before meeting him. He was sentenced to five years of banishment from Rome, barely moving a few kilometers from the city limits, and within a year the sentence was annulled thanks to his powerful patrons.
It’s easy to imagine how Gentileschi must have felt when she began this painting just a few years after the trial. The bloody sheets of the slain general reflect the bloody sheets that were used in the trial as proof of her virginity. Judith’s servant is transformed into a double, a twin, who helps her to resist the strength of her attacker, showing solidarity instead of abandonment. The rage pulses.
The parallels between the art and the artist’s life make the painting so legible, immediate, and radical that it is hard to not bring them to the foreground, but scholars like Bishop and Griselda Pollock have rightly remarked on how it’s a disservice to read an extraordinary woman’s work through the lens of sexuality and sexual violence again and again. Pollock notes, ”The whole axis of interpretation…has rested upon this violent and traumatic life event, apparently leaving its indelible trace in the choice of subject matter and energetic engagement with images of sex, violence, and female vulnerability that characterize her painted oeuvre.”
Critics place Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes within the “Power of Women,” a medieval and Renaissance topos of women dominating powerful men, a thematic site where conflicting ideas about gender roles could be expressed. But to dismiss this painting as simply a commission of popular theme, when the political implications of this work and the artist’s personal life are so clear and direct, is to attribute an exceptional dose of cynicism to the artist.
Even if we don’t want to interpret her work just through the lens of biography, it would be impossible to not read it in the context of the feminism of the time. While Gentileschi was barely literate, her literary and historical references show she was at the center of an educated and rich oral culture through which cutting edge ideas traveled.
In Artemisia Gentileschi: The Language of Painting, Jesse Locker makes a case for how Gentileschi could have become aware of two of the leading feminists of her time: Lucrezia Marinella and Arcangela Tarabotti—and, in turn, two different camps of feminist thought.
Marinella was the expression of a genteel feminism that, always with a lighthearted tone, poked fun at men’s prejudices, while the writings of Tarabotti, a nun, were rage-filled treatises, reacting to the forced cloistering of young women (Monastic Hell) and denouncing the patriarchal injustices of seventeenth century Venice (Paternal Tyranny).
Judith Slaying Holofernes could be read, rather than a simple expression of biography, as a thoughtful intervention in the debates within feminism, ultimately falling on the radical side of Tarabotti. In this reading, the traumatic event is not simply about the individual sexual violence that the artist encountered in her life but the experience of a severely unjust patriarchal system, one whose conception of justice judged her to be less trustworthy—and deserving of torture—simply because she is a woman, making her traumatic experience so public that we still have the transcripts today. It's a system that will seem familiar to anyone who watched Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the the Brett Kavanaugh hearings; even if it recognized the crime of her assailant, even if it did believe her, it didn’t deem it worthy of real punishment.